Sunday, September 30, 2012

Botany with Seniors

Every two weeks we get this amazing gift at  The Bridge. "A" comes by an leads an art activity group. She is with the Alzheimer's Association here in Juneau and runs a variety of workshops and training for those working with, living with or coping with seniors with dementia or Alzheimer's. She is radiant with energy and ideas.

Last week her art activity was designed around fall leaves and watercolor painting. I assisted her and those participating. Before "A" invited the seniors to the table to do art work, she asked one of the aides to read a poem about fall that she had brought with her. She does this almost every time. It is her precursor to the creative acts that will follow.

"A" also prepares samples of art work before she arrives.

These simply serve as guides but do not dictate a specific outcome or creation. She highlights the process over the product. Too, she frequently creates a table centerpiece - or several of these - that again serve as visual clues for the activity of the day. Once she did this wonderful class on creating a beach scene and she brought with her these little trays that she had filled with sand and sea shells. She placed a few of these on the table and you could see some of the participants look up from their art work now and then to view them and to use them as an artistic compass to orientate them to where they were and what they were doing.

Last week, "A" brought with her a dozen or so pressed leaves that she placed in small groups down the center of the table.

She also placed red plastic cups at each setting. She put two paintbrushes in each. She explained that the red handled brushes were there to designate the cups as for painting not drinking. Therefore when one of the senior participants was using the other paintbrush, there would always be one in the cup to visually remind the cup's use. I take a lot of notes after "A" leaves so as to remember all of her good, good wisdom and knowledge.

As soon as one of the participants had paper, brushes, paint and leaves, she started painting. She did it her way. Yet, it so reminded me of work I have seen in the classroom with the botany cabinet. She painted an outline of the leaf with quick, short brush strokes.

She removed the leaf and then, while glancing back and forth to the leaf itself, she painted the veins and other details. The stem of her leaf remained me of a mouse's tail. It was long and curved. The painting evolved over 30 minutes. When it was done, she signed it. She started a second moments later.

Others traced templates of leaves, while some tried gluing them in place.

Colors varied from bright, pumpkin orange to soft, moss green.

Several completed their pieces and were satisfied. One participant, and this happens often with her, could not decide on how she wanted to place the leaves.

She is very invested in order. She arranged a few leaves in one pattern and then removed them to attempt another. After everyone else had put away their art materials and "A" had said goodbye, this participant remained at the table having glued two or three leaves in place and with another 5 or 6 sitting alongside the paper. She "finished" one composition and then moved onto a second.

I let her know that there was no timeline for her art work, that she could continue without the group. She welcomed this and did so. When she stood up and decide she was finished, she asked if she could take the rest of the leaves home and work on them later. Again, this is part of her routine regarding on-site activities. She watches others complete projects and then assess hers in relation to what she sees as "so much better than mine." However, she is an excellent artist and has previously painted pictures of horses that drew her many compliments from both peers and staff.  This is part of who she is now and that will not change, nor is it my intention to try and "change" her. Instead, I and the entire Bridge staff encourage and support how each senior participates now.

We celebrate the present moment - the only moment there is. The participant photoed directly above will not remember that she did art today or that any of the leaves glued down were glued down by her. We never insist a participant acknowledge their art work. We never say, "Come on, you remember. You did this with "A" this afternoon." That would truly be coming from our desire for acknowledgement. For an hour she expressed herself via fall leaves, glue and paint. That was the timeline of the experience. A half hour later, it no longer exists.

"A" reminds all of us, process over product. I am already looking forward to her next visit.


Anonymous said...

Two things:
a) What a GREAT botany cabinet extension!


b) I'm continuously blown away by the Zen-like experience that must be working with seniors. When we work with children, the underlying hope is that they retain a large part of the knowledge they've been exposed to. How difficult has it been for you to let go of this expectation? Do you ever have moments when you feel the activity is futile if they won't remember anything an hour from now? I mean, I know that consciously you are aware of how senility functions but it must be difficult to break with expectations. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this...

And also, has your experience working with seniors changed how you would approach children if you were to return to a classroom?

Thank you for sharing your journey and including your impressions and insights.

Susan Y. Dyer said...

It is a zen experience. Non-attachment is paramount. At first, I had these brief moments of private grieving. They occurred after spending an hour or so with someone sewing or chatting and then them getting up to go to the bathroom or such and upon their return stopping at our shared table so as to introduce themselves or saying, "Sorry, you are sitting in my place." I have let go of the grieving, but I am sure it will return, to celebrate the honor of living in the present with these amazing human beings. Every activity is about providing them with a few moments of wonderment and delight, about inviting them to express themselves through art, science, botany, creative writing, etc. They produced a mark which states "I am."

Some of the participants do not have dementia and so they do remember what we they did last and they do build skills. But they have other issues that make concentrating difficult or that cause them to fall asleep during activities. Here again it is about just focusing on what can be accomplished in the present moment.

I never think of an activity as futile. For whatever reason I am now thinking of brief encounters with strangers on buses. I have had so many conversations with strangers that engaged me for the length of time that we shared the transit. And then that was it. Of course, I can reflect on those moments and seniors with dementia can not. Yet they can engage with others and activities and, oh my goodness, they can laugh, and often.

I don't know if I will ever return to the classroom. If I did though, I would bring with me a new respect for what a child is able to achieve in the moment. Think of those leaps to abstraction. Those moments when we hear and see a child mentally fly. Those moments are brief and perhaps the student doesn't even realize he is making a leap. We watch. We bear witness. We record in our notes what we observed. We create history via this recording. But does the child remember all that we note. History is a spectators story. I bear witness, record notes and create a history regarding the seniors at the Bridge. I catch their stories in the net called my notebook. I give my best effort and celebrate theirs while honoring all that they were and who they are now.

Susan Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet